Viva La Vegan!

Becky Thompson is a Professor of Sociology at Simmons College in Boston and author of the new book Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma.


She took some time out to answer a few questions.

Why did you decide to write your book?

My initial motivation came from an early teacher training I was participating in where I realized that many of the participants were whispering—in the halls, after sessions—about the depressions, loss, sexual abuse, and accidents they had experienced. But they did not feel okay about “coming out” about these traumas. It was as if yoga was in one corner and trauma was in another with no meeting place in between. One time during that training, while I was on my mat, I also dissociated (which is a disturbing combination of feeling confused, overwhelmed, absent, and disconnected). This surprised me and led me to co-lead a workshop on trauma for the other yogis.

That initial push was coupled by the inspiration I was getting from people who started to talk with me about their own stories of using yoga to help heal from racism, sexual abuse, incarceration, accidents, addictions, illnesses, great loss, war, etc.  Survivors has ninety entries that explore early yoga practice, what makes survivors special, what long term recovery looks and feels like, and why yoga practice often inspires activism. I chose the format for the book—the two-to three-page entries – for a culture on the go so that people can read the book in the middle of the night, in the minutes between their kids’ piano lessons, when they are weary, lonely, and feeling inspired.

What do you hope to achieve with the release?

For many months I have been sending out an early morning prayer that Survivors grows its own wings – that it finds its way into the hands of people who wiggle on the mat; who cry during the resting stillness at the end of practice; who are not sure how they got to yoga but know it is somehow working; who are seeking kindness toward themselves and others.  The book addresses “trauma” in the big sense of the word and “healing” in the big sense of the word (at the level of the individual body and at the level of the body politic as well).

Survivors is the first multiracial book about yoga and trauma. What becomes clear in the stories is that healing is a community process—no one can do it alone. We gotta help each other, tell the truth about our lives, be sure that stories don’t stay caught in our throats.

Another key message—yoga comes from the East, but it also has Indigenous and African roots. That history is important for vegans since an earth-based diet resonates with yoga, as an earth- based discipline. The place on this earth that we currently call the United States has a history of yoga that is centuries old—sweat lodges, kivas, talking circles, vision quests, and prayer (which are all yogic rituals) have all been practiced on this land way before the practices from the East were brought here. Yoga is earth-based, including the Indigenous earth we stand on in the US. 

BW_yoga_circlePhoto Credit: Ernesto Galan

What has the response been like so far?

The response has been so encouraging. Because of social media and the way publishing has changed, I needed to start the book tour before the book came out, which means that I have been able to work with burn survivors, domestic abuse survivors, recently recovering addicts, community activists, artists and refugees—all of whom have talked about finding themselves in the stories—even before the book was officially released. People have been going way out of their way to spread the word about Survivors.  I have been blown away by the response on the Internet—the tweets, emails, and Facebook communication.  Social media has helped the book find the wings I have been praying for. I would love for Viva la Vegan readers to join the conversations by Twitter and visiting my FaceBook page.  It has been particularly delightful to have the positive support from vegan authors and activists since that has been an important part of my own spiritual practice. And, like many other vegans, I feel a connection between conscious eating practices, creativity, and the imagination. Although I didn’t predict that vegan publications would be such early supporters of Survivors on the Yoga Mat, the connection between vegan commitments and activist yogis make so much sense. The very first principle in the eightfold path in yoga is ahimsa (which means nonviolence in Sanskrit.). That is the essence of a vegan life as well.

What’s the message you want people to take from your book?

That there is a possibility of tomorrow. That survivors are not alone, even if it feels like that. One key lesson for me was learning that trauma survivors are special—subversive angels on the road to healing. There is a tendency when we hear the word “trauma” to back away. To pass the tissues. The word sounds heavy, intense. In fact, many trauma survivors have special characteristics. We tend to be highly intuitive and ingenious—we have had to be to survive. Trauma survivors tend to throw their weight behind the underdog, are willing to question authority, and take risks. Trauma survivors often come early to yoga classes and stay late. They know that their lives depend upon healing.

What are your future plans?

I am already seeing that Survivors will take me places I have not planned to go—and that is exciting.  I am a hummingbird and so am happy to travel. I am hoping to continue with the book tour this fall—to studios, universities, and community settings in the United States (at Duke University, Vassar College, in Puerto Rico, in California….)

Currently, I am co-designing a six-week webinar with Nikki Myers titled “Activists on the Mat: Connecting the Dots: Yoga, Anatomy, Neuroscience, and Social Justice” that we hope to launch by the end of October. This project will draw upon Nikki’s quarter century of work as a yoga teacher and somatic therapist as the founder of the international grassroots organization Y12SR and my work in trauma theory, creative writing, yoga dance and activism. We are hoping the webinar will nurture a multiracial learning community that can be a model for creating social justice. It is a dream working with Nikki.

In the spring, I hope to continue my studies with Angela Farmer, the elder, world-renowned yogi who teaches in Greece while I keep meeting people connected with Survivors. I would also like to continue to teach the yoga, writing and healing workshops at the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, a feminist Buddhist retreat center in Northern Thailand, that I have had the lucky chance to teach in previous years. The International Women’s Partnership attracts activists and community leaders from all over the region. In any given session you are likely to hear three or four different languages. And while the morning and afternoon sessions on social transformation are exciting and generative, all of us also beeline it to the outdoor courtyard where delicious meals are served, including many options made with vegans in mind. As is true in many Asian cuisines, very little dairy is used. The plant-based meals, including the most scrumptious mangos and jackfruit in the world only enhances the already deeply felt community building that the International Women’s Partnership inspires. 

kathleen_randal_donna_dianeL-R: Randal, Becky, Kathleen, Donna and Diane

How long did the book take to make from conception to release?

While I can point to the summer when I officially started writing Survivors, (four years ago), in many ways I have been working my way up to this book for years. In some ways, Survivors is an answer to my first book, A Hunger So Wide and So Deep, which offers a multiracial perspective on eating problems and recovery based on life history interviews with African American, Latina and white women.  Like Hunger, Survivors offers stories of people living in the land of healthy solutions, who are finding embodiment that trauma had formerly stolen. The book follows A Promise and a Way of Life, which is a history of white antiracist activism from the 1950s through the 1990s, since Survivors seeks to offer examples of antiracist activism currently taking place in yoga communities.  Although I didn’t know this consciously when I started Survivors, I now know that I needed the last twenty years of writing, living, healing, and activism to get prepared for Survivors. For example, this book is a lot about the process of manufacturing joy. I didn’t know I even needed more joy ten or twenty years ago. And I never would have been able to put so much of my own story of trauma into a book before. That took some real coaxing and guidance this time around.

Survivors is an intellectual book in that I incorporate trauma theory, neuroscience and yoga philosophy. And it is an experiential book in that it starts and ends with the body—its pleasures and pain. Two decades ago, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or the community ties I needed to reach out to and find Joanne Wyckoff, who became my agent. And I wouldn’t have had the guts to include a bunch of photos of “unconventional” collective poses (that we have created together in my years of teaching yoga in an eclectic range of communities) in the book’s glossary. I can’t wait to hear what readers think and feel about all of this.

What other vegan people helped you with the book?

The vegan writer and activist Alessandra Seiter was one of the first social media bloggers (Farmers Market Vegan) who contacted me about doing an interview about Survivors on the Yoga Mat and its relationship to my being a vegan. (Read her article.) There are several vegetarians whose stories are profiled in Survivors—a reality that makes sense since yoga encourages us to find alignment with ourselves, our communities, and the earth. When people ask me about why I am a vegan, I often say it is because it brings me joy. I get to eat the freshest, most prana-filled and alive food available. I have lots of energy (sometimes so much that I wake up before it would be acceptable to call anyone without having to apologize). I hardly ever get sick and I love sharing vegan food with others.  While meat tends to be central in people’s diets in the United States, this eating is still the exception in the world. The thought of chewing on another being’s flesh has never been a draw for me. It does not take discipline for me to be a vegan. It makes me happy.

Especially since I saw the documentary “Fed Up” which traces the sugar industry’s control in the media, in government, in schools, and in people’s thoughts, I have been hoping that vegans continue to emphasize that animal-free eating is part of a larger vision of treating our bodies as temples. And that the meat, dairy and sugar industry are in bed with each other, and that is not a pretty picture. The film included a segment showing that when rats where given a choice between drinking cocaine water or sugar water, 40 out of 43 times the rats chose sugar. This is one powerful addiction that has a history that is intimately linked to slavery and colonialism. Vegans get a chance to connect the dots. My hope is that Survivors on the Yoga Mat—with its attention to the ingenious, multifaceted and determined ways that people heal with yoga—will provide one of many connections on our way to finding freedom.  

Becky_ThompsonBecky Thompson - Photo by Nancy Shoemaker

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